December 20, 2008

What story can Quakers tell at Christmas time?

I was going through old papers the other day, hoping to trim down the items in my file cabinet. One of the things I came across was a correspondence of sorts between a Friend in the meeting and an ad hoc committee, focused on looking at how the meeting "does" Christmas and Easter. I was part of the committee and it appears that the Friend was serving as clerk of the First Day School Committee at the time.

("The pageant" she refers to was a holiday program put on by the children on a First Day close to the Christmas holiday.)

As I was reading, I realized that not much seems to have changed since 2002: the concerns that the Friend raised more than five years ago in response to the committee's work are still relevant today.

On the other hand, looking at my own response from back then, I can see how much I myself have changed. I've clearly shifted from being a multi-faith Liberal Quaker to a Conservative-leaning Friend over the years.

Now that the season called Christmas is upon us, I thought I'd post the original letter and the response I crafted back then. Both are shared with the permission of the individual Friend who first wrote the committee.

Dear Committee on Christian Holidays,

I have appreciated receiving your minutes and appreciate the time you have each taken to address the myriad of interrelated questions that arise as you define and set about your task. I feel so led to add my own comments to the discussion, although it is unlikely I will be able to join you on Wednesday. These are my personal thoughts and are not intended to claim to represent First Day School committee.

I want to address the question through the eyes of a parent of young children--a perspective directly related to my absence in person from your meetings. I wish to have a response to my sons when they ask me, "What is Christmas? What is Easter?" The secular culture tells them, "commercialism." Their grandparents show them with toys and sugar. Does their faith community have a response?

I want to be careful not to get lost into how big or small Christmas is relative to other events in our spiritual lives. When Christmas arrives, Christmas exists. The fact that neither I nor my faith community have a Christocentric faith does not erase the existence of Christmas as a cultural happening. I have the choice to pooh-pooh Christmas or find a way to claim it. As someone brought up in a Christian faith and claiming as an adult Quakerism, a faith with roots in Christianity, I find it my path to find a story for Christmas, a meaningful story that I want to tell.

My four year old is entranced with story. One of the refrains of his life is "Tell me a story." I assume he is moderately typical in this regard; that requesting stories is how children developmentally find ways to learn and describe their world. He is wildly picky about his stories. He nixes fairy tales--too much bad stuff happens (Why was Goldilocks so mean?.). Fables don't work for him. They are built around mistakes. At two he cried when the characters painfully learn their lessons. He loves the classic moral story: where people are truly good to each other. When we happen upon one, we tell it 50, 60, 70 times. I receive the opportunity to craft and shape it until it truly works.

I have had a tendency to roll my eyes when he asks me for another story. I'm not a natural story teller. I don't have a good repertoire. It taxes both my time and my imagination. My better self, however, has realized that the time is limited when he will ask to listen to what I have to say. This is my opportunity to build for him a set of characters, morals and stories that form a foundation for how he sees and interprets the world. I find myself wildly relieved when I discover a story that truly works. Good King Wenceslas was a great success. So was the Christmas story. It was not so much me that chose them as the stories to be crafted in their telling as that my son did. I assume that something in them speaks to him.

This brings me to the pageant. I see it not so much as a celebration, as a telling of a story. I see it not as what it does or does not represent in my faith as an adult, but as what participation in it or a similar event can mean to a child. For my child it was his first awareness of a community of children older than him and as a foreshadowing of a community he gets to grow into. It was an opportunity to see a story belong to a community, not just to a family. It was a way to give Christmas a story that was bigger and better than, "your grandmas and grandpas like to buy you a lot of toys." Next year he wants to be a shepherd. I interpret that as that he's claiming the story, the event and most importantly the community. He sees a role for himself. OK, we may not really need shepherds here--but he was only three. It's a sense of connection to the larger meeting. To me the pageant was my faith community helping me recreate and reclaim a holiday, that I see trivialized, manipulated and misquoted, but not abandoned by the secular culture.

If the Meeting community does not tell this story corporately next year my son will ask me why. I am fine with relaying the answer to him, but I want it to be an answer I can proudly tell him. I am happy to tell him we're telling a story in a different way. I am happy to tell him we chose to tell a different story. I may even be fine with telling him that some people don't like that story, but when he asks me why I'll need an answer. I could tell him that they don't like the cultural baggage that hangs around the story and that I don't either, but he'll ask me why again. To him the story hasn't yet acquired cultural baggage. It's about a baby who grew up to make a difference in the world. That's a transferable message. Can we give that story some good baggage?

Other stories may convey love, compassion or empowerment in a more meaningful way. Other stories may be more important. Other stories have a lot less cultural baggage attached. But when the question comes up, "Why tell the story?", I'd like to add the question, "Why not tell the story?" Children are hungry for stories. Let's find more not less stories to tell each in all their glory.

For a lot of children, the pageant worked. Does this offend us? Does this scare us? Do we not want them to know the Christmas story? Is it that we want them to put the story in its proper perspective or is it really that we don't want them to know or claim it at all. As we struggle with the question how do we acknowledge Christian holidays in our Quaker community, I want to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The baby part I mean somewhat literally; let's not overlook the perspectives of the babes as we sort out our own philosophic interpretations of some of the stories that intrigue them. Let's concentrate our efforts on finding them more stories that speak to them; that they can claim as individuals and as a community.

Thank you for your time and attention. Once again I appreciate the time and tenderness that each of you are taking to help our community define and deepen itself through discussion about how to identify, acknowledge, tell and celebrate the values that bring us together as a community.

Holding your discussion in the light,

Annika Fjelstad

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dear Fellow Members on the ad hoc Committee on Christian Holidays,

I am touched by Annika's letter, and I am opened by it as well. I sense some wonderful possibilities emerging from her questions.

I find we as a committee often labor over a series of questions: What is to be our response when we or our young children are asked, "Why don't we celebrate Christmas?” and “Why are we different from everybody else?"

Many times, our work as a committee challenges us to consider related questions and concerns: What do we as Quakers believe, and how do we bring our Quaker beliefs forward in response to the pressures and activities of the larger society, especially around popular [secularized] holidays?

I have been amazed at how readily we, as a committee, acknowledge how little we truly know about BEING Quaker, yet there is more to Quakerism than worship into which we can immerse ourselves in order to understand how to answer these rich questions.

Like Annika, I too wish to find a meaningful story that can be told to young Friends, and reinforced among grown Friends as well, especially at the time of year when children want to feel like they belong, or at least understand why they might not. As a convinced Friend who was raised in a Jewish household, I wish for young Friends to have a strong sense of "where we hang our hat” throughout the year, without discounting or diminishing Christian stories, Jewish stories, Islamic stories, Hindu stories, and the like.

As a result of Annika's letter, I have begun living with the question, What might a meaningful Quaker story look like? What Quaker principles might it teach? Like children, I hunger for stories that help me understand how we are the way we are, as Quakers.

Annika's letter prompts me to go deeper into my question about a Quaker story: Who would be its characters? Would it acknowledge its Christian heritage, let alone the stories of other religions and peoples? Does Quakerism even HAVE meaningful stories that still speak to us as Friends today? My heart tells me this is so. And so I must begin to look with new eyes and listen with new ears in order to know these stories in a deep way.

I affirm that there is something in our Quaker history that speaks to us yet today, but we have become disconnected from these stories and therefore distanced from their power. Even though I recognize the names George Fox, John Woolman, William Penn, Margaret Fell, Mary Dyer, and Rufus Jones, I could tell you very little about the stories behind their significance.

Surely a religious society such as ours could not have persevered without its own share of goodness, and without stories that reflect that goodness.

Our task as a Meeting, as I see it, is to reach for these stories, teach these stories, and re-create them in a way that carries meaning for seasoned Friends, new attenders, and young Friends so we can know the place of Christmas and other secular holidays within the broader scope of our Quakerism and not, as we have been, continue to fit Quakerism in its small, peculiar place among the larger world.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I love the truth of Annika's perception, that the story that [such] pageants have told is about a baby who grew up to make a difference in the world.

But so am I, a baby who is growing up to make a difference in the world.

So is the most devout Muslim, and the most dedicated Hasidic Jew. Why hold up one above all others? Why hold up one day above the rest?

I have never wished for our pageants and celebrations to point to a "special" person. Rather, I would want to point to our Quakerism, our faith and our practice, saying, "Of course Jesus became a great teacher. He lived up to his Light and was granted more of it. Gandhi, while not Christian, made a difference too. He too lived up to his Light and was granted more of it. And [the late] Elizabeth Watson, just up the street, she too is a great teacher, and she worships as we worship. And Momma, or those two daddies, or that little girl who is sitting on her father’s knee, they too are able to be great teachers and make a difference in the world. You are able to grow up and make a difference in the world."

I would want what we share with our community to be based in Quaker history, Quaker faith, and Quaker practice, to shine the light onto what is possible today because of what happened yesterday, that we are each capable of embodying the Divine Spirit, by seeking the Light and opening ourselves to the Inward Teacher.

Again and again, Annika asks good, important questions. She asks, Does it scare me that for a lot of children, the pageant worked? Yes, it does.

I am scared that young Friends will see it as a story, not as a way of life. I am scared that young Friends will think Quakers are "just the same" and have the same stories as so many other Christians, when in fact how we come to know the Truth is quite different.

Annika asks, Do we not want our children to know the Christmas story? Well, I want our children to know the Christmas story, the Hanukkah story, the Ramadan story, the Kwaanza story--to know these stories and also to know our own, the Quaker story, even more thoroughly.

Our religious society is Quaker, not Lutheran or Jewish or Hindu or even generically social. At times I wonder if we share the Christmas story and other such holidays, such as Passover, because it is easy, popular, and familiar; because it is accessible in texts and movies; because for many of us it is part of our individual personal experience of growing up; because it gives us a chance to come together socially without having to unpack our religious baggage.

I would say to Friends who wish to focus on the story of Jesus that this is not enough. I want the backdrop of our story-sharing to be a backdrop of our Quaker faith, with the other stories being slides projected onto it, like showing a movie on the wall of the Meetinghouse. And in-between each slide we still get to see the wall onto which the other images are shown. We turn the projector off, but the wall remains as part of the structure within which we gather, we learn, we worship.

I am grateful for the experience, questions, and thoughts that Annika brings forward in her letter. It is only by wrestling together with these concerns that we can know them completely and then discern how to live with them into the future, as a faith community and as a religious society.



Lorcan said...

This comes at a funny time... och no, not that I am sitting at my desk in my coat and shivering - which makes me feel very Christmassy ... no, because my Catholic wife described me as being the clerk of the 15th Street Bah Humbug Committee...

Ah let's see, pass around a nice wee hot dram, and rub our reddened hands together for a few Christmas stories...

It is last Frist Day, and the children of our Meeting tumble up to the front of the Meeting at rise of Meeting gripping flutes, fiddles, recorders, shakers, and a former famous base player with his guitar and another parent with a Uke, settle down to sing Christmas carols with the Meeting.

I am sitting with my 88 year old Mum... who after 43 years of anger is coming to Meeting again, and my Catholic wife, who often wears red for contrast with her dower looking Quaker husband - and grey clad Motherinlaw. I am sitting there, grinning like the other plain fellow everyone knows on the Oatmeal Box... but, alas, not singing with the others.

I thought the big grin was enough to say, "follow your witness little Friends... I wont be the one to tell you there is no Santa Claus..." Though, I do admit a fondness for the story from "Growing up Plain" about the author learning about Christmas at school and telling his father and mother all about Santa Claus. It ends with his reflection that his father had a sense of humor, letting him put up a stocking by the fire, only to find it full of hay and coal in the morning... I find it a rather bleak story, would not do that myself... but I do find being dower... well, a bit of a chuckle.

But, my wife noticed I was not singing. So, she decided I was the clerk of the Bah Humbug Committee. I find it is about truth. The deeper I study the origins of the Christian part of our faith, the more I am convinced I cannot in truth say that the story told at Christmass was not a myth which evolved, and was driven by as violent a process as can be imagined. So, I love Yeshua as a landsman, honor his light as a Rabbi and one who gave light to our faith, as did Fox, and others - profoundly. However, to make an idol of him, well, I might as well go somewhere with stained glass and an alter.

But, I can enjoy the warmth and fuzzy glow of Christian Friends and their children, but just cannot speak that message as my truth. In the same way I wish Muslim friends Salaam Alechem, completely with all my heart in honor of their light and truth, I am not bowing to the East seven times a day.

I do draw the line at placement of a Christmas tree in the Meetinghouse. If it must be, in the common room I can live with. I feel the simplicity of our faith is the best road to open us to light and truth.

Placing all Bah humbugs aside, Merry Christmas to all, and to all ... it's bloody cold!!!

Thine in the light

James Riemermann said...

Liz, I hope people were mostly pleased by the holiday program this year. I know I was. On the other hand, I was also pleased by the program several years ago that some others in our meeting had such difficulties with. I thought it was delightful.

To me, holiday programs are an opportunity to see our kids get engaged and have fun and be cute. I need nothing more to justify it.

Regarding the Christmas story, the nativity, as a part of our holiday program, I have neither strong attachments nor difficulties with it, probably because it wasn't a big part of my growing up. As a great lover of stories, I'll be frank and say, I've heard better stories than the nativity. It doesn't particularly grab me.

I would have a problem--a very serious problem--if I felt this story were being taught as history, or as *unquestionably* central to our children's religious identity. That is the way the story is taught in some churches, but I don't think that has happened in our meeting. At least I hope not.

I would like our kids to know the diffence between a story and history, and to have skills for judging the credibility of literalist readings of such stories in a religious context. I would like them to be able to appreciate the poetry, while understanding that poetry is what it is.

Liz Opp said...

Lorcan -

Good to hear from you!

Your own experience reflects a bit of mine: "I can enjoy the warmth and fuzzy glow of Christian Friends and their children, but just cannot speak that message as my truth."

I think there is a difference between being dour/Scrooge-like and living into one's integrity, especially when it comes to the time called Christmas (and Easter, to boot).

James -

I was planning to attend the late worship that day, especially to see the holiday program, but as I recall, the weather was not the best and I ended up staying home.

My own concern about a "Christmas program" per se is that it's not a far leap from hearing or portraying the "common" Christmas story to the commercialization of the day. But as a faith community, I have learned to be careful about imposing my individual preference onto a group's effort--something I was less mature about back in 2002!

I would be easier with having some form of "Quaker Christmas story" that would teach the young people--and perhaps young parents--a bit more about how Quakers have come to our peculiar ways of "doing" Christmas.

One example would be to portray a contemporary Friend, struggling with the meaning of Christmas, and meeting up with a "ghost of Quakerism past," moving back in time while also stripping away the various outward markers of the holiday, only to rediscover the underlying Quaker message that all life is sacramental, all days are holy.

That said, I certainly have my share of greenery and votives around the house--a reminder that life goes on, despite the brutal winter.

In addition, my partner and I have become more and more focused at this time of year as a time to consider those who have less opportunity and fewer resources than we do, and we make (financial) gifts accordingly. We also experience a general slowing down of our lives, as so many friends and family across the country gather for the day.

Thanks for writing.


Lorcan said...

Dear Liz:
I am writing to ask for release from the clerkship of the Bah Humbug committee. Though I intend to remain an active member, having just read Martin Kelly's "scrooge" post, I must ask that he clerk this committee. Well done Martin, joining thee in a a hearty chorus of silence during the caroling!
All the best of joy in the New Year

Liz Opp said...


I understand that serving on the Bah Humbug committee is completely voluntary. I don't believe anything needs to be done through any MfWfB.